For the Cause or Just Because?

Cause marketing can be a rewarding effort … or a public relations disaster

By Richard Rutigliano, PriMedia, Inc.

A funny thing happened this year in the world of corporate advertising — well, funny if you’re amused by big brand snafus, not so much if you’re on the receiving end of them.

In case you missed it, I’m talking about the infamous Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner, wherein the 21-year-old model and television personality poses for pictures in front of a protest, grabs a can of Pepsi, crosses the protest line, and hands the Pepsi can to a police officer, thus magically uniting police and demonstrators in a moment of harmony and understanding. Or something like that.

Predictably, when the ad, produced by PepsiCo’s in-house agency Creators League Studio, was introduced online, social media erupted in befuddlement and outrage at the spot’s sheer absurdity and tone-deafness. One veteran marketing professional tweeted, “I’ve been studying commercials for 30 years. Kendall’s Pepsi ad is legitimately the worst one I’ve ever seen.”

The company pulled the ad within two days of posting it and issued a statement, saying: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

A public relations disaster for the ages, this scenario at least offers a valuable lesson on what not to do when it comes to cause marketing.

For the uninitiated, cause marketing refers to any advertising or marketing effort geared at a particular ‘cause’ or issue. It could be as simple as a direct mail or social media campaign announcing your company’s holiday toy drive, or as significant as a newspaper op-ed written in support of (or against) legislation that would impact your business and your customers.

Know The Cause

The above definition is helpful because it points out one of the key failings of the Pepsi ad and other cause marketing campaigns that miss the mark. When a marketing effort is aimed at addressing a social issue but does not clearly define what that issue is, or waters it down to the point of ambiguity, audience members might get the perception that the company is being ignorant, disingenuous or exploitative.

A campaign for a generic cause like “world peace” might seem safe — because who doesn’t want world peace, right? But today’s consumers are skeptical of “socially conscious” advertisements that are not aligned with a particular organization or a specific societal issue. In other words, saying, for example, “Help our company support local families with a contribution to Oil Heat Cares,” is much more believable and effective than only saying, “Help us help those in need.”

People want to know where their money goes. They want to know what the issue is, so you need to know too. If you are going to publicly support a charity, be sure to engage that organization’s staff, get permission to use their name in your promotional materials (local groups are usually forthcoming with this), and keep your marketing people posted throughout the process. This will help ensure that your message stays on target and doesn’t call into question your motives or trustworthiness. The more identifiable the cause, the more likely your audience is to get behind it. This leads me to my next point…

Pick a Cause Important to You

You don’t have to be an environmentalist to promote the green benefits of Bioheat® fuel, but it helps if you actually sell Bioheat fuel. The same applies to any cause marketing campaign. If you have a tough time getting behind a particular issue, but decide to go with it regardless of your feelings, one or more of these outcomes is likely to occur:

  1. You will have difficulty championing the cause in the first place;
  2. Your frustrations or disillusionment will become apparent;
  3. Your campaign won’t connect with people at all;
  4. Your campaign will appear to be co-opting the cause simply to sell more product, and could actively turn people against your brand.

Obviously, the last outcome (i.e., the Pepsi outcome) is the worst-case scenario, which you want to avoid at all costs. With this in mind, it makes no sense to promote a cause you can’t get behind.

Think about it like this: An honest home heating business doesn’t sell a boiler known for breaking down. For one thing, it’s more sustainable to sign up customers for service plans and provide annual maintenance than it is to charge customers for afterhours repairs and pay your employees overtime for late-night service calls. On top of that, selling sub-standard products reflects poorly on your business, leading not only to customer losses but also unfavorable reviews and a bad reputation.

Likewise, an honest business doesn’t attempt to promote a cause that’s out of step with the company’s values. Instead, you should pick a cause or issue that you truly believe in, one you feel comfortable attaching to your brand.

If your business hasn’t formally declared a mission or vision statement, think about doing so before taking up a cause. Work closely with your most trusted associates to define your company’s values. Once those pieces are in place, then you can identify a cause that is mutually beneficial to both your company and community.

I say “community” rather than “society,” because I’m addressing the owners of small- and medium-sized business as well as larger corporations. It makes sense for a local business to sponsor, for example, a local sports team, just as it makes sense for a big business to partner with state or regional nonprofit associations or even federally funded NGOs.

Don’t get me wrong! Small-business owners can support big causes too — look at the way fuel delivery companies stepped up during this year’s hurricane season — but make sure they’re causes that fit your company’s mission and build from there.

Partner Up

Let’s bring it back to Bioheat for a second. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, as you’ll read on page 22, recently signed legislation making B5 standard across the downstate region. If you think that happened because of the efforts of one business owner going it alone, please contact me today to discuss one of the many bridges currently available for sale in the New York metro area.

The fact is, it takes a coalition of many business leaders, policymakers and concerned individuals working together to build support for a cause and see it through to fruition. The same goes for any cause marketing campaign, no matter how small in scale.
Yes, you can sponsor a local sports team on your own, but will anyone other than the coaches and parents of the players know that you did if you don’t spread the word? Furthermore, how do you spread the word without it looking like you’re just patting yourself on the back? Therein lies the true challenge of cause marketing, and that’s why it’s smart to work with an agency that can help you hit the right tone.

When taking up a bigger cause, it can help to work closely with your association partners, as these groups have the collective reach, infrastructure and funding needed to garner more widespread support. This is especially true if you’re considering taking on an industry issue related to state law or public policy. However, some trade associations also support community-based organizations that otherwise have nothing to do with the industry.

Aligning your business with an existing cause is almost always easier than building support from the ground up. That said, the degree of your company’s involvement should once again depend on you, how well you know the cause, and how important it is to you and your company. If a cause is particularly critical — if the survival of your business depends on it — then going it alone can be particularly perilous.

Whether your cause marketing campaign demands a focus on public relations, event management, brand identity, or all of the above, PriMedia is here to help. Call 800-796-3342 or contact me online at goprimedia.com  find out about these and other integrated marketing communications solutions.

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